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The Geneva Conventions at 60: learning from the past to better face the future

06-08-2009 News Release 09/152

Geneva (ICRC) – The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is marking the 60th anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions, signed on 12 August 1949, by calling for improved compliance with the treaties by States and armed groups.


More about the Geneva Conventions

  More about the ICRC survey: Our world. Views from the field
  The ICRC conducted the Our world. Views from the Field. survey as part of the Red Cross and Red Crescent's Our world. Your move.

The ICRC will also use the occasion to present its views on future developments of international humanitarian law.

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols form the backbone of international humanitarian law (IHL), which places limits on how war is waged. All 194 States are party to the Geneva Conventions, making them universal.

The ICRC is appealing to States – and to non-State armed groups, who are also bound by the rules – to show the political will needed to turn the legal provisions into a reality on the ground.

“We see violations of IHL on a regular basis in the field, ranging from the mass displacement of civilians to indiscriminate attacks and ill-treatment of prisoners,” said the ICRC’s president, Jakob Kellenberger. “Even wars have limits and if the existing rules were followed to a greater extent, much of the suffering caused by armed conflict could be avoided. On a more positive note, many of these violations are no longer going unnoticed. Increasingly, those responsible are being held accountable for their actions and that is a sign of progress.”

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols provide the most relevant existing framework for protecting civilians and sick, wounded or captured combatants. The humanitarian mandate of the ICRC – which includes visiting prisoners, organizing relief operations, reuniting separated families and other humanitarian activities during armed conflicts – is spelled out in these Conventions.

“In recent years, the relevance of IHL has been questioned in the face of the increasing complexity of armed conflicts and the difficulty o f distinguishing between combatants and civilians as well as phenomena such as terrorism and asymmetric warfare,” said Mr Kellenberger. “There is no doubt that existing rules of IHL remain relevant and that achieving improved compliance with the law continues to be the main challenge. The ICRC has to examine all possible means of enhancing compliance. "

" At the same time certain key concepts in today's armed conflicts have to be clarified and some as yet insufficient rules have to be strengthened, " added Mr Kellenberger. " It would also be desirable to further develop certain aspects of the law, particularly those related to non-international armed conflicts. The ICRC's role is not only to do all it can to enhance respect for existing rules but also to give advice and guidance concerning which clarifications and developments of the law are considered necessary from a humanitarian point of view. "

The ongoing relevance of IHL is supported by the findings of an opinion poll, commissioned by the ICRC to mark the anniversary, on what people in countries affected by war consider acceptable behaviour during hostilities and on the effectiveness of the Geneva Conventions. The research, entitled Our world. Views from the field ., was carried out by the Ipsos Agency in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines.

“Most of the roughly 4,000 people surveyed across the eight countries – 75% – say there should be limits to what combatants are allowed to do in the course of fighting,” said the ICRC’s director for international law, Philip Spoerri. “But when asked if they had ever heard of the Geneva Conventions, slightly less than half said they knew such rules existed. Among them, around 56% believe the Conventions limit the suffering of civilians in wartime.”

In Liberia, 65% of respondents said they had heard of the Conventions and among that group, a striking 85% of people said the treaties had a " great deal " or a " fair amount of impact. " In stark contrast, while roughly the same number of people in Lebanon (69%) said they were aware of the Conventions, only 36% of them thought that they were effective in limiting suffering.

" The findings reveal broad support for the core ideas behind the Geneva Conventions, and IHL as a whole, by people who have actually lived in conflict- and violence-affected countries. I find it very encouraging that despite having faced the horrors of fighting, people tend to agree that certain types of behaviour are unacceptable, such as killing civilians, kidnapping, torture, attacks on religious monuments, looting and sexual violence, " explained Mr Spoerri. 

" Yet the survey also shows that the perceived impact of the rules on the ground is far weaker than the support for them. We view this as a strong indicator that people in war-affected countries want to see better respect for and implementation of the law. So does the ICRC, " he concluded.

For more information, please contact:
  Anna Nelson, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 79 217 3264   (English, French)
  Hicham Hassan, ICRC Cairo, tel: +201 87 42 43 44 or   (Arabic)

A press conference will be held at ICRC headquarters in Geneva on 11 August at 14:00 local time. The president of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, and the ICRC's director for international law, Philip Spoerri, will take part.

 TV news footage will also be available, including fresh images from Georgia/South Ossetia, which was involved in an international armed conflict with Russia in August last year. For feed times or to obtain a copy, contact Jan Powell: +41 22 730 2511    

 Photos from the eight contexts, as well as historical images, including pictures of the 1949 signing of the Conventions, are also available for media use on the ICRC's FTP server.